Dysfunction-function junction

“Hamilton-Paterson sees the destructive impact of the ‘money men’ on industries more clearly. The catastrophic and unnecessary fate of ICI (which broke the hearts of some of my own chemical-engineering relatives) came about as men and women with long shop-floor experience and technical qualifications were pushed out of management by newcomers who claimed to be financial wizards. They weren’t. They played the great corporation for short-term stock-market gains, and they lost.

Hamilton-Paterson adds the example of Network Rail’s bungled electrification of Great Western (its cost rose in two years from £874 million to £2.8 billion). ‘That’s privatisation for you: layers upon layers of managers and accountants who know nothing about railways. The old British Rail alternative was layers upon layers of experienced railwaymen who knew nothing about accountancy but who did know exactly what electrifying a line entailed and simply got on and did it.’ Later in his book, he attacks the notion (‘holy writ’ today) that a college degree in management enrols one in a portable profession in which it hardly matters what a company does.”

Neal Ascherson, “As the toffs began to retreat” LRB 40(22).

If your goal is to play the institution housing an accretion of wealth–the corporation, or the privatized public good/service–for stock-market gains, then it very much doesn’t ever matter if you accomplish any substantive social or environmental goals.

“People talk easily about political ‘consensus’ in the postwar years. Edgerton disagrees. There was no lasting consensus between the parties on the welfare state, he says, and the idea of a ‘Butskellism’ common to Labour and Tory is a myth. Only for the ‘warfare state’ was there a consensus, to keep its secrets and to pay its vast bills. Britain’s hugely profitable arms trade is an enduring by-product of that state, and here Hamilton-Paterson contributes an unsettling thought. ‘It is the arms industry perhaps more than any other that best preserves the inventive standards and traditions of British engineering, research and technical expertise.’”–Ascherson

Advertisements

The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Neoliberal Education Mangler Tactics

Michelle Rhee is a charismatic, top-notch conservative orator who knows how to destroy public education in America, with zest. Even though she was a failure when she first hopped on the public education destruction gravy train.

Joanna Bujes analyzes neoliberal education entrepreneur Michelle Rhee’s rhetorical strategy, and proposes a tactical pro-education strategy.

Rhee’s rhetorical strategy:

“I’m a maverick, fighting for children. Education is children v. teachers. To help children, we need to fight teachers. We do that with standardization/top-down micromanagement and privatization.”

Rhee is a high-earning forward on the fightin’ Right-wing Lady Mavericks team

Lois Weiner’s “A Witch Hunt Against Teachers” (2012) reveals the new divide-and-conquer public education destruction strategy: ‎

“Instead of teachers as a group being blamed for children’s lack of achievement, only the ‘bad teachers’ are going to be targeted. And who are the ‘bad teachers’ in this new campaign? Those who oppose what’s supposed to be ‘right for kids’: the use of standardized testing, charter schools, privatization — and the destruction of teachers’ unions.

Hollywood will once again enter the fray of school politics, with a new propaganda vehicle, Won’t Back Down, an action film, funded by the same right-wing think tank (Walden Media) that produced Waiting for Superman. This time Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal will carry the message that good teachers don’t need or want unions or any of those ‘selfish’ (so un-mother-like!) desires like pensions, good salaries, limited working hours.”

To counter Rhee, Bujes recommends this pro-public education talking point:

“A good education arises out of strong, healthy, respectful, supported relationships.

We need to support a great educational environment where teachers work and children learn together, so we can foster the relationships that make for education excellence.”

Finland’s superlative education reform has been built around supporting teachers and their working environment–students’ classrooms. 
Real education based in valuing teachers and treating them with respect, as a group: 
It’s not just for Nordic Middle Earth elven folk.

I see its strengths, but the weakness of Bujes’ counterhegemonic argument is that it’s incredibly vague–I think because it needs a firming step 2, like Rhee’s argument has. Me, I think we also need to reintroduce to the public the radical Dewey ideas about the importance of public education for a capable, critical, analytical, decision-making, self-organizing democratic citizenry–because our elites are making terrible autonomous decisions, repeatedly, from an overly narrow set of parameters. Occupy education.

In “We can do better than this,” Doug Henwood discusses the OECD’s recent comparative study of education success and failure.

“In the most successful systems, teachers are treated as high-level professionals; curricula emphasize creativity and complex skills; work organization is flat and collegial rather than hierarchical and authoritarian; accountability is to peers and stakeholders, not the authorities; and all students, not merely the best ones, are expected to learn at high levels. The U.S. scores poorly on many of these criteria, and many of our ‘reforms’ take us in a worse direction. 

… The (successful education reform of the Ontario) provincial government, says the OECD, ‘drew a sharp contrast between its capacity-building approach…and the more punitive versions of accountability used in the United States.’ Their approach was collegial and cooperative, not competitive. 

…In successful systems like Ontario and Finland, teachers have a great deal of professional autonomy. There may be a national curriculum, but teachers are expected to know their subject well and develop their skills at imparting knowledge. …And in most successful systems, standardized tests are rare” Henwood 2012.

Do you want to know how to actually improve education, as opposed to simply deunionizing workers so that elites wind up with more cash which to blow upon their shitty, unchecked, unproductive, counterproductive speculation cons as well as upon their beloved pastimes, political and economic mismanagement, running us into the ground, and collecting serfs? Here’s how: Finnish education reform. The upshot of real education improvement? You need political commitment, for 40 years; you need unions and teachers to help make education policy; with the exception of providing warm lunches to nourish children, you need to provide welfare, adequately, through other institutions, so that teachers can focus on teaching; and you need to support and promote the human and intellectual development of teachers as professionals.

Not constant top-down imposed testing, AKA infantilizing micromanagement. Not privatization. Not deunionization. Just the very opposite.

So you tell me: How feasible is real education improvement in the Anglosphere, insofar as real education improvement relies on improving the conditions and status of the working class labor involved? Yeah, I thought so. It’s heresy. That’s why we’re left with the code “education reform” for yet another mouldy old program to dismantle workingclass-serving state institutions and redistribute the social wealth ever upwards, to people who use it to wipe their ass.


Why is the current elite consensus on Education Reform a reactionary project?

The reactionary goal is austerity–to appropriate social wealth upward into a financial elite by, inter alia, invoking the decline of mass public education. The decline of mass public education is accomplished step-wise, by dismantling the fundamental social institutions that are required to maintain a mass public education system: “professional” (semi-autonomous, self-developmental, and organized) teachers.

Because of the structure of the market, and conservative, antidemocratic workplace law, teachers can only retain professional development so long as they have organizational independence–unions. The campaign is reactionary because it is orchestrated by elites to cannibalize and kill off working class institutions–unions, professional teaching, and mass public education. The US capitalist class is cohered around this primitive accumulation project.

An understory of middle class managers can make a living off this state-facilitated wealth and assets grab in a short-term framework. They can think of themselves as Men of Action. They can tell themselves they’re Doing It for the Children. They don’t ever have to face the big picture of what tune they’re tap dancing to…Or maybe, like Ravitch, they will when they retire with rare pensions.

[This brings forward the strategic question of middle-class neoliberal managerial rationality cost-benefit calculation: Middle class neoliberal managers make a comfortable living, but don’t accumulate much, given the ever-widening maw of inequality their work helps build. Their immediately-“successful” work creates the conditions whereby their own children will have fewer freedoms. There are big environmental parallels here.

I think that people in such a position could just as easily be pushed into the other, longer-term rationality path–If they don’t whore out, inequality will not balloon to cancel out their subordinate self-promotional economic strategy.

Except these social factors overdetermine Neoliberal Whore Rationality: 1) Social humans’ competitive positional incentives–which are exacerbated as inequality rises. This is how sociability is translated into alienation. 2) Social humans’ conservative deference to hierarchically-defined truth and value claims, especially in a milieu of elite political cohesion and homogeneity. 3) Access to and retention of jobs and incomes, where these are allocated on the basis of conformity to the elite austerity agenda. Capital’s got coercion locked down.]


Occupy: Radicalize for Education

Of course, Occupying education would mean that teachers cannot stay de-radicalized. I don’t know how they could be fence sitters at this point; but entrenched habits are hard to break, and Pew polls seem to indicate that young people have naturalized their own proletarianiation and dispossession.

Teachers have to recognize and proudly champion public education and decent working conditions–which must include unionization for most, as dependent upon a radical political-economic agenda. They have to reconsider what it is to be the good boys and girls–It’s not being non-disruptive (Though sometimes it might mean in a machiavellian way posing as non-disruptive retainers).

I know this is a socialization problem. It makes me think of my grandpa, one of the many teachers in my family. He moved his family to South St. Paul, Minnesota after WWII because that school district had the best compensation and working conditions and fostered the highest social status for teachers of any public school district in the U.S. at that time. Why? They had the most radical teachers’ union in the US. He admitted that. Yet all my grandpa could kvetch about, when I knew him nearing his retirement and afterward, was how unjust the capital gains tax was. “I’m being taxed twice!” he complained. That’s right, he enjoyed such low inequality, such access to the social wealth, such social status based in a successful working-class education system, fought for by other workers, that he imagined he was a capitalist. My grandpa, who was so sweet and kind to me, and whom I love and miss, was in that sense a parasite, a free rider but worse–who helped kill off the working conditions he himself enjoyed, along with the great public education system those conditions created. He never fought for those great working conditions he went to take advantage of. In fact he voted for, and contributed money to a political agenda to destroy those working conditions in his wake. He was a good boy. Here is the real tragedy of the commons–a tragedy, we’ve seen over and over again, that is overdetermined by capitalism’s incentive system.

It’s capitalism; it’s not supposed to be about wealth distribution–it’s about wealth accumulation. But that doesn’t justify such depths of autistic self-interest as to reify labor aristocracy and competitive intra-working class managerialism. If, against all market rationality, people sacrifice for better working conditions that improve your life chances and the life chances of your children, the very, very least that you can do is to use the resources they’ve built for you to continue the fight to replace market rationality with social and ecological rationality. (However, I also think it’s a bit late for this. After decades of conservative hegemony and the coordinated expropriation of working class institutions and resources, we’re entering an era when people will have to fight for distributive, etc., justice from nearly first base. I’m just saying, as always, that such a fight is particularly futile and aimless without a socialist backbone. We get beat down time and again by our own inability to recognize where power is accumulated, for what end, in an accumulation system.)

In the face of the current 1% despotism, a popularized Dewey education revival can be a rousing, emotional, altruism-activating collective project; and it has the virtue of taking on superficially-altruistic neoliberal entrepreneurs right at the discreetly-hidden heart of their agenda to pulp and expropriate independent working class organizations–such as unions and public education itself, a necessary-but-insufficient last-resort welfare safety net for millions of families in Anglo-American societies–and to throttle working class intellectual and political capacity…The better to primitive-accumulate, my dear.

US Apartheid and Education

Education in high-inequality America is an excellent case study illustrating the importance of having the capacity to distinguish conservative campaigns, and to understand their logic and social trajectory.


Popular theory holds that feeling affected when you are shown images of suffering will allow people to make ameliorative changes. Yet both images of suffering and human sentiments can be mobilized for a variety of ends that may subvert ameliorative change. (Soc Mov lit: (J Jasper and Poulsen, J Goodwin, F Polletta, V Taylor) ) Take the example of the conservative education reform campaign’s strategic manipulation of antiracist sentiment, including through the conservative education reform campaign’s documentary “Waiting for Superman.” There is a reason that this particular education reform campaign does not, despite its compassionate–even antiracist– articulations, reduce child trauma, education failures, social welfare failures, poverty, and education and welfare outcomes inequality. That reason lies in the logic and trajectory of conservatism.


Eight pieces on the progressive perspective on US apartheid and education reform:

Two progressive views on Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”:

Waiting for Superman is a Propaganda Campaign” (Pallas 2010).

Lois Weiner’s “A Witch Hunt Against Teachers” (2012) reveals the new divide-and-conquer public education destruction strategy: ‎”Instead of teachers as a group being blamed for children’s lack of achievement, only the ‘bad teachers’ are going to be targeted. And who are the ‘bad teachers’ in this new campaign? Those who oppose what’s supposed to be ‘right for kids’: the use of standardized testing, charter schools, privatization — and the destruction of teachers’ unions.

Hollywood will once again enter the fray of school politics, with a new propaganda vehicle, Won’t Back Down, an action film, funded by the same right-wing think tank that produced Waiting for Superman. This time Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal will carry the message that good teachers don’t need or want unions or any of those ‘selfish’ (so un-mother-like!) desires like pensions, good salaries, limited working hours.”

2 selections from the progressive US African-American community, courtesy of Black Agenda Report (BAR):

Progressives and teachers favor Finland’s anti-inequality, pro-teacher model of education excellence, described in “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success” (The Atlantic 2012).

Conservative Moralism’s Empirical Education Reform Failures in the US: 

Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-gooders” (Hartman 2012).

Diane Ravitch, a former high-flying anti-union education reform crusader, saw the data and had a change of heart:
Ravitch: “As I became a scholar and, you know, got into the academic world, I found myself—I don’t know. I fell into a sort of a conservative mindset about a lot of things.

…If you believed that children should study history and geography and real things, you’re conservative in the academic world, because you’re not supposed to believe in a real curriculum. I believe that it’s not conservative; it’s actually very liberal and empowering to have real knowledge… But having been castigated as a conservative for believing in having a traditional curriculum, when I went into the Bush administration, I found myself kind of getting caught up in the choice rhetoric. And so, for about ten years or so, I was advocating for charter schools. They didn’t exist, so I didn’t know how things would turn out.

…Over the years, from the period in which charters started and in which the whole Accountability movement started (And what Accountability ultimately meant, not just in the Bush administration, but in the Clinton, and now in the Obama administration, Accountability means who should be punished. If the scores don’t go up, who should be punished? Teachers. Teachers should be punished. The unions should be demonized.), I began looking at the results. When I looked at No Child Left Behind and saw, you know, we’re not really making any improvements under No Child Left Behind—the test scores have been either stagnant or made tiny improvement. Actually, the gains before No Child Left Behind on national tests were larger than since No Child Left Behind was adopted. I mean, I looked at the evidence, and I thought, all these things that I hoped would work didn’t work.

…This is the great legacy of No Child Left Behind, is that it has left us with a system of institutionalized fraud…(E)very year we get closer to 2014, the bar goes up, and the states are told, ‘If you don’t reach that bar, you’re going to be punished. Schools will be closed. They’ll be turned into charter schools.’ That’s part of the federal mandate, is that schools will be privatized if they can’t meet that impossible goal. So in order to preserve some semblance of public education, the states have been encouraged to lie.

…’The Billionaires Boys Club’ is …a new era of the foundations and their relation to education. We have never in the history of the United States had foundations with the wealth of the Gates Foundation and some of the other billionaire foundations—the Walton (WalMart) Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation. And these three foundations—Gates, Broad and Walton—are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And that’s now the policy of the US Department of Education.

…I’m just trying to say the evidence says No Child Left Behind was a failure, and the evidence says that charter (privatized) schools are going to lead us into a swamp of—well, first of all, they’re not going to be any better, because if you look at national test scores—charter schools were first part of the national tests in 2003—they didn’t do any better than regular public schools. They were tested again in 2005, 2007, 2009. They (privatized schools) have never outperformed regular public schools.”

–Dr. Diane Ravitch,
Research Professor of Education at New York University,
Assistant Secretary of Education and counselor to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush and appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Clinton.Interviewed on Democracy Now!
March 5, 2010.

Thanks goes out to my colleague, sociologist Chris Powell, for pushing me to articulate what is at stake in the contemporary era, in having an historically-embedded grasp of conservatism–the reactionary drive to shore up surplus accumulating/maldistributing social orders by psuedo-speciating humanity. Recognizing conservatism doesn’t require favoring one axis of oppression over others, a contentious primary concern within the neoliberal-era Left. On the contrary, an expanded literacy in and capacity to distinguish conservatism enables us to be better insectionalists. By grasping the trajectory of conservatism, we can avoid the characteristic Left problem of the neoliberal era–becoming class blind in order to see racism and/or sexism, and in the process betraying our antiracist and feminist aspirations, as in the cases of conservative US education reform, discussed above, and conservative Swedish labor market reformNancy Fraser’s feminist call to distinguish feminist anti-authority from capitalist creative destruction also points to the problems of an incapacity to identify conservatism.

(The previous epoch is more infamous for the reverse problem of class-literate racism and sexism, which was not as uniform–to start, see here, and here–as is today popularly imagined. But this infamy may be an effect of the relative ease of denouncing the foibles of the dead. It may well be that some communities’ more adequate understanding of conservatism could have contributed to better intersectionality in the past as well.)

Here’s a letter from a man with a visceral grasp of what conservatism is about.

The US Model of Social Exclusion

Here is a link to Schmmitt & Zipperer’s “Is the US A Good Model for Reducing Social Exclusion in Europe?” (2006) CEPR.

Not so much, contend the authors, analyzing social exclusion through the variables of income inequality, poverty, education, health, crime and punishment, the labor market and finally, the coup de gras, social mobility.

On How to Have an Effective Democratic Education System

Reprinted from The New York Times, April 30, 2011

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries
By DAVE EGGERS and NÍNIVE CLEMENTS CALEGARI

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources. Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives. We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect. Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession? People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course. The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea. Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent. McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a maximum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money. For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.


Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari are founders of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher.”